Stuart Forster looks at the origins of Chinese New Year celebrations and festivities around the world to celebrate the annual event also known as the Spring Festival.
Friday 12 February 2021 marks the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Ox. This year, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, celebrations in many parts of the world will be muted.
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Traditionally, firecrackers flash and pop during Chinese New Year celebrations. Drums and gongs sound. Dragon and lion dances are held in cities around the planet.
Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival. It’s also about celebrating the arrival of springtime and the season of fertility. A thorough spring clean is traditionally part of preparations for the New Year.
Hong Kong’s Lantern Festival
The festival endures for almost a month. Preparations start eight days before the new moon can be seen. Celebrations conclude with the Yuan Xiao Festival, also known as the Lantern Festival, 15 days after the Chinese New Year.
If you head onto the streets of Hong Kong you’ll witness people heading to temples carrying paper lanterns. In bygone times matchmakers kept their eyes open for potential couplings in the soft light of the lamps and the date still has romantic connotations.
Red paper lanterns are available via Amazon:
Chinese New Year celebrations
In a national culture in a country as enormous as China, it’s perhaps inevitable that New Year celebrations vary markedly from region to region. In northern regions families paste red paper cutouts of animals onto north- and south-facing windows. That tradition is not followed during the Chinese New Year celebration in the country’s south.
That said, Chinese New Year celebrations have common elements wherever you witness them around the world.
The legend of Nian
The ancient legend of Nian is central to Chinese New Year celebrations around the globe.
Whether you’re in Shanghai, a village in Shanxi Province or strolling through the busy San Francisco Chinatown, knowing the story of the mythical creature will help you fathom what unfolds during Chinese New Year festivities.
With the fearsome head of a grimacing lion and the powerful body of a muscular bull, Nian dwelled in the mountains. As winter came to end his supplies were inevitably exhausted. In order to survive, Nian had little choice but to venture forth from his barren upland habitat to seek food.
Ravaged by hunger he fed upon crops, livestock and even people in the villages he passed through. It’s whispered somewhat gruesomely that Nian was particularly fond of children. Their tender flesh meant youngsters were easy and enjoyable to devour.
Chinese New Year origins
To save themselves and their terrified offspring from Nian’s gnashing teeth, villagers placed offerings in front of their doors. If Nian was placated and no longer hungry, why would he harm those inside the houses?
This explains why you’ll see Chinese business owners and heads of families offering food to the dragons and lions that dance along the streets during New Year celebrations.
If you can book a table in a Chinatown restaurant during Chinese New Year festivities, try to reserve a seat by the door. You could well find that you have a prime spot for observing the mythical creatures symbolically devouring food offered by the proprietors.
Cabbage is often chosen. It’s regarded as auspicious, symbolising good luck and prosperity over the year ahead.
Firecrackers and red lanterns
After years of Nian’s unwelcome incursions, it’s said that villagers started to observe that he shied away from loud noises. He also had an aversion to people wearing red clothing and, like so many wild animals, fire.
When word of this got out people began hanging red lanterns outside their houses. Red scrolls over doors and windows also helped ensure families’ safety. Gongs were struck and drums beaten. In more recent times firecrackers were ignited to scare away the fearsome beast from the vicinity of human settlements.
It certainly seems that the measures to scare away Nian are working. He has not been seen by anyone in living memory. Why break successful habits? People around the world persist in taking preventative measures as the Chinese New Year approaches. After all, one can’t be too careful.
Some versions of the legend mention Hongjun Laozu. The aged Taoist monk reasoned with Nian and eventually subdued him. According to some variations on the legend, he can still be seen riding Nian in the distant mountains of China.
Couplets outside of Chinese homes
In addition to lanterns, you’ll also see couplets written on red backgrounds hung outside of houses celebrating the Chinese New Year.
Traditionally they consist of seven characters and wish people good luck. They are believed to help to drive away evil spirits. This tradition dates back more than 1,000 years and began with people simply tying up two pieces of peach wood.
Dining on Chinese New Year
It’s important for Chinese families to celebrate together at New Year. That means dining together, even if it means a long journey sit with family members.
Ingot-shaped dumplings known as jiaozi feature in feasts in the north of the country. In southern China sweet rice cakes, known as Nian gao, are eaten. During feasts, it’s traditional for senior family members to hand their juniors red envelopes containing money, symbolic of wishes for prosperity and good luck over the next twelve months.
Wherever you are, here’s wishing you wealth and good luck over the year ahead.
Places to enjoy Chinese New Year
Beijing, China – If you’re going to experience a genuine Chinese New Year, why not do so in China’s capital city? At the Temple of Earth (Ditan Park) you can observe re-enactments of Qing Dynasty ceremonies and view acrobats.
You can visit a number of temple fairs around the city. At the Changdian Temple you can taste traditional foodstuffs and browse stalls for handicrafts and calligraphy.
Hong Kong – A parade slinks through streets near Victoria Harbour on New Year’s Day. The following day a grand fireworks display will be fired into the night sky.
London, England – Enjoy the celebratory buzz at restaurants in London Chinatown, near Leicester Square. Dancing and other artistic and cultural performances are usually held on Trafalgar Square.
Newcastle upon Tyne, England – Watch dragon, lion and unicorn dances take place along Stowell Street. A colourful Chiese gate stands across the road from Newcastle United’s St James’ Park stadium.
New York City, USA – Major celebrations are held in the Chinatown districts of cities around the USA. Take to the streets in New York City to view the New Year Parade featuring floats, musicians and dancers.
Sydney, Australia – The city’s Chinese New Year Festival includes events such as Dragon boat races and a fireworks display at Cockle Bay.
Vancouver, Canada – The colourful parade in Vancouver’s Chinatown draws thousands of onlookers and features dozens of dancing lions. Take your camera to this spectacular event, which involves dancers from the Chinese community.
Chinese New Year dates
Here’s a look at a 12-year cycle of Chinese New Year dates:
- Year of the Ox – 12 February 2021
- The Year of the Tiger – 1 February 2022
- Year of the Rabbit – 22 January 2023
- The Year of the Dragon – 10 February 2024
- Year of the Snake – 29 January 2025
- The Year of the Horse- 17 February 2026
- Year of the Goat – 6 February 2027
- The Year of the Monkey- 26 January 2028
- Year of the Rooster – 13 February 2029
- The Year of the Dog – 3 February 2030
- Year of the Pig – 23 January 2031
- The Year of the Rat – 11 February 2032
Chinese Zodiac Signs
Interested in knowing which animal represents the year of your birth? Take a look at Chinese signs of the zodiac. Remember that the Chinese lunar year does not align with the Gregorian calendar.
Books about Chinese New Year
Let children get interactive with Chinese New Year: Coloring Book for Kids:
Additionally, why not get into the celebratory spirit of the Chinese New Year by sharing monetary gifts in red envelopes:
Have you enjoyed or participated in Chinese New Year festivities? You’re welcome to recommend your favourite location or make suggestions on how to make the most of it in the comments field below.
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, is an award-winning travel writer and journalist based in North East England. Stuart has had photographs exhibited at China’s Pingyao International Photography Festival.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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